You Can’t Define Woke

The word is not a viable descriptor for anyone who is critical of the many serious excesses of the left yet remains invested in reaching beyond their own echo chamber.

Black-and-white photo showing a mass-produced batch of wide-open eyeballs
Hulton Archive / Getty

Updated at 11:58 a.m. ET on March 17, 2023

As I was preparing to go onstage for an event recently, the moderator warned my co-panelist and me that the very first prompt would be “Please define the word woke for the audience.” We all sighed and laughed. It’s a fraught task, requiring qualification and nuance, because woke has acquired what the French philosopher Raymond Aron termed “subtle,” or “esoteric,” and “literal,” or “vulgar,” interpretations. Put simply, social-justice-movement insiders have different associations and uses for the word than do those outside these progressive circles. Before you can attempt to define what “wokeness” is, you should acknowledge this basic fact. Going further, you should acknowledge that as with cancel culture, critical race theory, and even structural racism, the contested nature of the term imposes a preemptive barrier to productive disagreement.

Merriam-Webster offers this definition: “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” That’s not bad so far as it goes, and there is a secondary definition that encapsulates the “vulgar” (or common) understanding that the attention is excessive: “disapproving: politically liberal (as in matters of racial and social justice) especially in a way that is considered unreasonable or extreme.” But neither adequately conveys the implication that the point of the attention is fundamentally to remake society. Progressives sometimes exploit these ambiguities to accuse the “anti-woke” side of rejecting near-consensus beliefs, such as the need to call out and remedy actual instances of racism.

This messiness is why I have argued for years now that “woke” is not a viable descriptor for anyone who is critical of the many serious excesses of the left yet remains invested in reaching beyond their own echo chamber. The word is more confusing than useful, and we should make good-faith efforts to avoid using it. As I wrote in The Guardian in November 2021: “Fairly or not, ‘woke’ and ‘wokeness’ now overwhelmingly signal that you’re not fundamentally interested in that rhetorical labor, and those who need the most convincing give themselves permission to stop paying attention.”

When I shared this line of thought on Twitter, many of my most thoughtful centrist and conservative followers found it frustrating. A common critique boiled down to this: They were exasperated that just as the word had gained traction in the public imagination—becoming a useful tool to expose and stigmatize an activist idealism that they believe is illiberal and punitive in practice—moderates such as myself were wringing our hands and trying to take that tool away from them.

In the year or so since I made that case, the pejorative has gone international, as I wrote in this magazine recently. Yet I remain convinced that one should never rely on language one cannot hope to control or even fully explain. An important further complication to this debate is that as the word woke migrated from Black American slang to common usage, the critics of the social-justice ideologues the term denotes came to rely on their own esoteric jargon. Now they can barely communicate what, precisely, they find problematic about “wokeness” and wish to correct. Hence, they end up using this word as an epithet to refer—vaguely—to seemingly anything changing in the culture that they don’t like. That is the critique they open themselves up to, in any event.

Trying to define the subtle negative meaning of woke can feel like walking into a trap, a reality that leaped out to me when I watched the viral clip of the conservative writer Bethany Mandel on the talk show Rising. In an appearance to promote a new book in which she devotes a chapter to a critique of “wokeness,” Mandel states in passing that many more Americans consider themselves to be liberal than to be woke. At that point, the co-host Briahna Joy Gray interjects, asking Mandel to define woke so that everyone can be on the same page. This straightforward request gives way to an excruciating 45 seconds in which Mandel sputters and disintegrates, even as she shakes her head and predicts, “This is going to be one of those moments that goes viral.” Ultimately, Mandell says that woke amounts to “the understanding that we need to totally reimagine and redo society in order to create hierarchies of oppression,” before trailing off.

That explanation is not without logic or insight. The constellation of social-justice concerns and discursive lenses that have powerfully influenced institutional decision making does work to sort individuals into abstract identity groups arranged on spectrums of privilege and marginalization. To paraphrase James Baldwin, it proceeds from the insistence that one’s categorization alone is real and cannot be transcended. The idea that patriarchy, white supremacy, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other ills inexorably saturate our lived realities and that the highest good is to uncover and oppose them is, I think, a central component of “wokeness” as both its proponents and critics understand it.

What’s more, the gleefully vicious attacks on Mandel are in themselves a prime example of what rightist and centrist commentators mean when they note the excesses of social-justice ideology. Mandel’s critics make a more substantive error too: Just because one person struggled to define a term that has become useless and riddled with bad-faith connotations from every angle does not mean the underlying issues disappear. On the contrary.

But perhaps we can all agree, at bare minimum, to set ourselves the task of limiting our reliance on in-group shorthand, and embracing clear, honest, precise, and original thought and communication. If we want to persuade anyone not already convinced of what we believe, we are going to have to figure out how to say what we really mean.